Anthony Frame's first full-length book of poems, A Generation of Insomniacs, is a coming-of-age collection full of elegies -- elegies mourning place, elegies mourning people, elegies mourning specific time periods. Physically set in the 1990's when Kurt Cobain was King of the pop culture world, Frame's collection tackles the big themes of loss and hope all the while navigating the stark Ohio Rust Belt landscape.
One of the first poems in the collection, "How to Write a Poem in Toledo, Ohio" serves as a perfect prelude to the collection. In this poem, Frame writes, "Start with the churches, those brilliant buildings/standing at the center of every neighborhood." From these first two lines, he moves forward, giving precise directions for writing about a place including citing specific actions: "Learn how/to hop fences as a child. As an adult//learn how to hop curbs in your 4x4." He ends with this piece of advice: "If you manage//to leave, don't forget your blue collar genes." After all, he explains, "Here, we fray. Here, we rust. Remember that."
Certainly, the pictures of a frayed and rusted narrator follows the reader throughout the collection, as many of the poems focus on the stark images of a time period filled with tension and loss. The collection weaves in and out of personal history that often reflects both local place and the world at large. Some poems focus on memory such as "Hate" which depicts a scuffle between two boys that ends with physical pain and injury and a narrator who says, "This city has more hate than broken windows." In another poem, "Why I Hate the Sunrise," the narrator thinks back to his perception of war as a memory of a teacher who wheels a television to her classroom to show "A green sun exploding over the darkened sky/ of Baghdad, surrounded by cascading comets."
Still, most of the poems take on a more lyrical, instead of narrative voice, often mourning different losses. The time period of this collection focuses on the early 1990's and the poem, "Are You Ready" finds a group of friends toasting the new millennial with the narrator cataloging their futures -- futures he cannot yet know: "Greg will get kicked out of Iraq for loving/a man. He'll move to Maine/hiding himself/among snow and foster children./Eric will find salvation in a church run//by a schizophrenic Christ, the rapture always/ almost here. Jason will lose himself somewhere/on the fringes of Route 66. The Pacific Ocean/forever a fantasy, he'll come back to Ohio//and die slowly, woken at night by cancer scars/and seizures." Indeed, several works in this collection are dedicated to Jason including the poem, "Heart-Shaped State" that explains, "Jason's cancer grew from/his skin towards his lymph nodes. We should have seen/the danger of sun and bare skin, but we knew//albinos die first in nature."
As with many collections that focus on elegies, A Generation of Insomniacs also finds the narrator of these poems fighting losses about himself. In "Evolution," he depicts his own grief about the departure of a friend: "As you cry, I stand and search this secret crowd/for a space to remain a man." In another poem titled "Last Night of Childhood, Nearly Thirteen," the narrator laments the loss of youth when he returns "to the boy in the green bedroom/his name scribbled on the door above a series/of inches and dates." Yet, Frame's work is not without hope. Several poems celebrate hope in the face of loss including the concluding poem, "Flannel Love Poem With a Touch of Sky" where the narrator addresses his love: "I pull into our driveway, the sun/soon to rise. In front of me, the living room lamp/you left on all night to guide me home./Above me, the stars and the spring breeze/dancing with the bedroom window. And you, love--/wearing my old Nirvana shirt as a nightgown."
For more information, see Frame's website or visiting Main Street Rag, the publisher of A Generation of Insomniacs.
I'm not a Johnstown girl -- but at heart, I am a Pennsylvania girl. Perhaps that is the number one reason why I loved Kathleen George's newest book, The Johnstown Girls. This novel follows the history of the Johnstown flood through the eyes of two reporters who are exploring the story of Ellen Emerson, a 103-year-old survivor of the flood who believes that her twin sister, who went missing during the flood, is somehow still alive.
While the main story line that weaves Ellen's current narrative with her memories of the past is a wonderful reflection about how we are all part of a bigger, more complex history, I found the two main characters, equally interesting. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporters, Ben Bragdon and Nina Collins are investigating Ellen's story all the while engaging in a love affair that is leaving both characters exhausted and confused. Nina, especially, is a heartbreaking character, who does not want to get in the way of her lover's reportage of the story, yet feels a special bond with Ellen. When questioned by others in the story about her relationship with Ellen, she simply replies "We are both Johnstown Girls."
There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of books and articles about the Johnstown Flood, and a reader will probably not find anything new about the historic tragedy. And that's okay. Instead, anyone opening the pages of The Johnstown Girls will find a quiet testimony about those who find the strength to survive even through the worst of tragedies.
For more information, visit George's website where she talks a bit about the background of her newest book.
At the start of Trespasses, author Lacy M. Johnson explains her writing process of compiling her memoir by saying that she spent over sixty hours interviewing family members about their life stories. Then, according to Johnson, "At a certain point the facts got in the way of the truth." The line between what is truth and what is fact is always a fuzzy boundary, of course, and it's this fuzzy boundary that Johnson uses as a tool to explore her family's life in rural Missouri.
Johnson's story is not a chronological one. Instead, she chooses to trace the past through episodic scenes; many of them could be described as spots of time or specific transcriptions of memories. Through these snippets we see her parents' and grandparents' stories, stories that often brim with a rugged love of both family and land.
We also see Johnson's own stories . Not only does she record her own memories of growing up, we read quiet contemplations woven in between tales. Identity is the main focus of these contemplations, and indeed, class, race, and gender issues surface through many places in this book. For example, in one section, Johnson considers the meaning of white trash while recording her struggles at a major university. In another section, she discusses her frustration when someone tells her that the rural Midwest doesn't have "culture."
Like Johnson, I know what it is like to struggle with identity. I grew up in rural northern Pennsylvania, a place that cannot be defined by being part of the East Coast (our way of living is nothing like those who live in New York City or Philadelphia), yet we are not really part of the Midwest. Technically speaking, we are part of Northern Appalachia, which yes, is very different than Southern Appalachia -- so as you can see, I find identity a hard subject to examine, and Johnson's episodic exploration of the past is a stark look at the way we navigate our own personal histories.
For more information about Trespasses, and other work by Lacy M. Johnson, visit her website.
In many ways, I am more of a reader than a writer. This page will serve as a home for my informal reviews of what I've been reading.